A journalist who was arrested, thrown in a police cell and accused of stealing a document has claimed he was tracked by the Police Service of Northern Ireland in a covert surveillance operation.
Enniskillen born Trevor Birney, a former journalist with The Impartial Reporter, and fellow reporter Barry McCaffrey were detained over the alleged theft of a police watchdog document from the Police Ombudsman’s Office which appeared in a film about the murder of six Catholic men shot dead by the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in Loughinisland in 1994.
Last week detectives dropped their nine-month long investigation into the two journalists – which has so far cost £325,000 with that figure set to rise – following a court ruling in Belfast during which the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan quashed their “unlawful” search warrants.
Now in an exclusive one-to-one interview with this newspaper Mr. Birney has:
•    Spoken of his shock after it emerged the PSNI was tracking him and possibly his family
•    Said his arrest and the seizure of documents by police has “hung like a cloud” over him
•    Revealed how even close friends in Fermanagh asked him – ‘did you really break the law?’
It’s Saturday morning and Mr. Birney is at home in East Belfast leafing through thousands of pages of documents unearthed in an expensive judicial review he launched and won against police. He forensically examines every word of every document in between dealing with phone calls and texts.
“There are people who were in touch with supportive messages in recent days who I haven’t even got back to yet, I don’t like to rush that, I want to send them something with meaning,” he said.
Aside from his colleagues in journalism a lot of the supportive messages have come from his friends and family in Enniskillen where he grew up and started his career.
“It has been a real mix of emotions,” said Mr. Birney. “First and foremost, our thoughts are with the Loughinisland families. It is hard to even begin to understand what it must have been like for them to have to watch this farce unfold over the past nine months. 
“No one has ever been charged or convicted with the murder of the six men there, 25 years ago next week. What do police do after seeing the film? Once again, they opted not to look under the stone, but to go after the journalists instead. 
“Our hearts go out to the victims who have had to endure the impact of the morally bankrupt decision-making by police. They called in Durham Police to do the dirty work and they proved to be willing conspirators.
 “It is relief that finally Barry and I have been exonerated by the police but that came at a cost. While I was in a cell in Musgrave Street police station, I was advised that the only way to protect the company, journalists, researchers and producers was to take a judicial review. That judicial review started on the day of our arrest and hasn’t finished yet.”
“We have started to see the return of our materials, which is not only important for us but also for our sources. 
“When the police raided our office they knew they were compromising our relationships with those who’ve trusted us with their stories.”
He hopes the legalities will be “wrapped up” in the next number of weeks and believes it was the judicial review that forced outgoing Chief Constable George Hamilton to take the decision to end the investigation into him and Mr. McCaffrey.
“Of that there is no doubt,” he said.  “Now we are all completely exhausted; the intensity of the court hearings and the aftermath. It has been a very tough few weeks after a very intense nine months.”
As the weeks go on the two journalists are learning more about the extensive operation launched by police last year during which Mr. Birney instead of bringing his children to school was arrested in front of them and thrown in a cell.
“What we now understand is that the police had a covert surveillance operation on myself and Barry. For my wife and children that is a very difficult reality to comprehend, does that mean our home here has been compromised by police? Does that mean they have been following us in our cars? Does that mean they have bugged our phones?
“Does that mean they have been watching us as we drop our children off at school or take them to the swimming pool or the cinema? What was that covert operation and what did it entail?”
He describes the entire surreal situation which saw his name and photograph used in rallies for press freedom in towns and cities around the world as “a symptom of what has been happening for the last nine months since police in a very heavy handed fashioned came through our doors”.
“Since then we have been living this night and day and it has become the dominate factor in our lives; it has hung like a cloud over us.”
He rarely takes breath but in this instance he pauses for a moment, then declares: “You know, I absolutely do believe the police hung a placard of thief around our necks last August”.
He is referring to the “malicious” release of a press statement by the PSNI on the morning of the arrest which said detectives were investigating “the theft of documents that indeed had been leaked to us.”
“The police called us thieves and that has been very difficult not only for my wife but my 80-year-old mother living in Enniskillen, and for my brothers who have to answer unnecessary questions about what I was supposed to have done.
“I have very good friends, people I know in Fermanagh and other places, and they have had to ask the question of me – did you steal a document? I think that is what police did to us, they tried to turn us from journalists into thieves and I think that is unforgivable and an unwarranted attack on press freedom, an attack like we have never seen before in the UK or Ireland,” he said.
He is adamant that this was a “full on frontal assault” on the press in Northern Ireland by the PSNI.
“There is no doubt in my mind that police when they released that press release that was an attempt to blacken our reputation, an attempt to deal a blow to our reputations at home and aboard and to mark us as thieves.
“But I knew sitting in a cell on the morning of my arrest that this case would never go to trial, never mind go to prison. We knew there wasn’t any evidence of Barry and I having broken any law and that’s what the Lord Chief Justice found. He couldn’t even find what crime we were meant to have committed never mind what the police were supposed to be investigating. 
The police were simply trying to go after our sources. This was also an attack on the integrity and independence of the Police Ombudsman.” he said.
Mr. Birney and Mr. McCaffrey are not going away.
“When we took the judicial review we set out what we believe are the remedies of the unlawful actions. 
“The PSNI have to right this wrong, this senseless attack on myself and Barry and on press freedom,” he said.
Alex Gibney who directed the No Stone Unturned film said this week a “great victory” for worldwide journalism has been scored following the quashing of the search warrants.
He said: “I thought the original arrest was terribly unjust and clearly meant as a display to discourage future journalism on the Troubles. It was a great victory and a very important one at this moment in time throughout the world.”
Mr. Birney believes fearless, truth-seeking journalism has never been more important whether in Fermanagh, Belfast or London.
“I learned my trade at The Impartial Reporter and I am very proud of that, and very proud to tell anyone that I meet on my travels that I started in Enniskillen. That is where I met some fearless journalists and editors, people who were prepared to go the extra mile in order to pursue the truth. 
“That is something that has stuck with me the whole way through my career, and it gives me huge satisfaction when I see the work of journalists in the Impartial Reporter or indeed those in UTV where I worked. It is absolutely vitally important, we feel there has to be accountability in a proper, functioning liberal society. Investigative journalism is absolutely the centre of it and any attempt to attack or curtail it must be met with a full comprehensive response,” said Mr. Birney, in an interview with The Impartial Reporter.